It got fatig’d, I guess.

I used to figure I was an incurable optimist and cheerer for possibility – politically speaking I mean. I’ve begun to lose that. I see that in my expectations for this event put on by some folk I like very much, and this project, also done by some fine people. Eli‘s been pushing me on this, quite reasonably and fairly, following on from some of our conversations about academia and politics.

Here’s what I wrote to him, put here for my own archiving purposes.

A suggested typology of intellectual and political folk –

1. professional intellectuals writing as professional intellectuals
(the Frankfurt School, arguably some of the SI’s professional artists
writing for exhibition catalogs)
2. professional intellectuals writing for movement/organizational
audiences and/or about movement/organizational concerns (Castoriadis
in S or B is a good example, Althusser and his circle is another)
3. nonprofessional people who did a lot of intellectual production and
had that as their primary or a major focus (the SI, the Communist
Party Historians Group [I believe this is the group that Thompson and
Hill and others came out of] the Johnson-Forest Tendency, the UK
groups Solidarity and Aufheben, the German group Wildcat, actually I’d
say almost all the council communist/ultraleftist tradition)
4. the nonprofessional intellectual writings of people who did not
have intellectual production as a main focus but who had to think
things out as part of their other goals (basically any revolutionary
organization that left behind a written record with any iota of ideas
in it – the IWW, the Bolsheviks, the 1st International)

I can say for me while I read a lot of the 1st and 2nd I’m more captivated by the 3rd and even more so the 4th type. While I’m not taken with Hardt and Negri’s work much anymore I think Michael Hardt is one of the best commentators I’ve read in pointing out that social movements and radical organizations think and produce their own bodies of ideas.

Other thoughts –

What are the differences between intellectual production and the production of propaganda ditto re: the production of artistic objects? (So, what’s the difference between the types and functions of slogans that Rosa Luxemburg called for her party to produce and the types of work produced by Adorno? What’s the difference/is there a difference between the Surrealists’ [and the Situationists and… etc] political manifestoes and their artistic production?)

Within each point of the typology above I think the role of institutions and audiences (and the differences between the different types and contexts for institutions and audiences) are often left out so I’m glad you want to talk about that. That’s a loss for understanding intellectual collectivities – at least that’s my experience of reading and hearing people talk about these folk. These sort of folk are most often read and my own habit is always to read people in a decontextualized way as theorists, so “is Althusser right in his description of how ideology operates in institutions?” rather than “what is Althusser responding to in debates within the French Communist Party at the time?”

In terms of folk who have tried to tie together intellectual and political work, I’m personally drawn to things for two largely independent reasons – what seems to me intellectually lively and what I’m concerned about politically. I think these are independent from each other but at the moment that I’m initially fired up about something I tend to have a hard time telling the difference. For instance, I think the SI had really interesting and exciting intellectual debates and often some really great writing (I can’t remember the name right now but Sanguinetti’s short hoax book on Italian capitalism is fantastic) and so I love to read them, but my honest opinion is that they’re a political dead end for the things I most care about. This is perhaps another area where I’m pessimistic, about the prospects for unifying intellectual life with political life. I know a lot of my own connection to lefty stuff has been driven largely by my need for an intellectual life and I know being involved with lefty stuff has enriched my intellectual life a lot (making grad school often feel a bit intellectually dull by comparison), but I’m not at all convinced that the most intellectually satisfying political things I’ve been involved in have been worth very much politically, just as I’m pretty convinced that a lot of the most effective things I’ve done politically have been intellectually a bit boring or at the very least not at all profound.

On tying together political and intellectual work it’s also important to distinguish between intellectual work and professional academic work. In terms of what has been intellectually exciting the overlap of my intellectual life and my political life has pretty regularly been at least as satisfying as the overlap between my intellectual life and my academic life – there are ups and down to each overlap of course. With that change in mind I think the issue of how intellectual and political work square looks very different depending on which we’re talking about with the term ‘intellectual’ – a substantive sense of the life of the mind vs academic life. Based on my experiences, my default setting is to view all claims about that unity as likely being either ideological cover for less than satisfactory situations or as self-serving – even if unwitting – assertions by people whose careers in part trade on political credibility. I also think that squaring the circle of academic/intellectual and political life takes time away from other possible activities and organizations which are to my mind more important, politically speaking.

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